With members of influential acts coming together for a new project, Wrangler’s output was always going to be intriguing. But with classic technology defining the tracks – and becoming a collaborative partner – the results of the band’s debut album can be extraordinary. Andy Jones meets the men who wrangle the music from the gear…
Take an ex member of Cabaret Voltaire – surely one of the most influential electronic acts of the last three decades – and match him with Tunng member Phil Winter plus master of analogue electronics (and recent John Foxx collaborator) Benge, and you have a music tech(no) explosion waiting to happen. Wrangler is the resulting band and with debut album LA Spark out now, they have produced an offering not only electronic in nature but one often led in style by the individual pieces of technology from Benge’s extraordinary East London studio.
MusicTech meets up with the three members of this electronic supergroup to discuss the meeting of minds, and how the gear often shaped the sound of the techno crowd…
A meeting of minds
MusicTech: So how did you all meet?
Benge: Phil And I go back to the late 90s when we were both active on the UK electronica scene. I was dealing with various projects and artists on my label Expanding Records and we would often cross paths with Phil’s legendary electronica DJ sets at various venues across the globe (but usually in east London). Then, later, Phil joined Tunng who were recording at my studios in Soho, and we got to hang out even more.
Phil Winter: I met Mal through hanging out at Some Bizarre records and Benge through DJing on the electronica science in the late 90s.
Mal: I’ve known Phil for a long time. We used to hang out in London around the time of Some Bizarre, go to gigs, watch cricket, do bits and pieces in the studio etc. We’ve always stayed in touch while we both did different things and I travelled around. When I based myself back in the UK I caught up with what he had been doing which included experiments with Benge in the studio. I got Twenty Systems [Benge’s 10th studio album] so I knew which direction things were coming from and popped up to the studio to see how it was working and what they were wrangling with. I just joined in and the guys were into it, so was I, so Wrangler took on another phase of its life.
MT: Were you aware of each other’s backgrounds?
Phil: Very aware as we all met through a musical appreciation of each other. I had seen both Mal and Benge performing before actually meeting them.
Mal: I’d been getting fed stuff by Phil while I was overseas. I’d got the Soundpot releases but it was great to come back and see how well things had been going with Tunng. Phil updated me on everything, I met up with all the Tunng people, who are a wonderful bunch, and Benge of course was closely connected, so I was brought up to speed on what had been happening. Benge’s reputation goes before him so it was great to all hook up and get to work. It’s a good mix – we’re all the same but slightly different – and three is the magic number.
MT: When and how did you all decide to make an album together?
Benge: After I released my Twenty Systems album Phil and I thought it would be interesting to do a whole project that only used one synthesiser per track like I had done on the album. That’s where the name Wrangler came from, because it was like we had to have a fight with each synth to get a track out of it. That idea spawned lots of quite minimal tracks that we had knocking about for ages.
Phil: I played these to Mal, then invited him up from Brighton. It became apparent it was a solid combination, the three of us. The idea for an album was quite late in the day – initially it was going to be an EP and it just grew.
Mal: The album was more a case of stopping and realising that we’d done a lot of tracks together but left them in limbo so we should really take stock of it all before things got out of hand and we had to consider a triple album. We’d released a number of remixers for other people (Bomb the Bass, John Foxx, Section 25) but only done one 7-inch (Sequence On). Steve, who manages us, pointed out it that perhaps wasn’t the best strategy to do gigs but not have a proper release ready so we stopped about six months ago and concentrated on making the album. Voila LA Spark.
MT: What did do you initially hope to achieve with the project?
Phil: It was just the opportunity to carry on working together and play some live shows.
Mal: I guess to make an album that represented what we’d been doing for the last couple of years, and also capture some of the dynamics of the live gigs. It hopefully shows us and the technology – man and machine in perfect harmony with just the right amount of disharmony and tension in there. It would be nice to think that we’ve been able to get across a sincere passion for analogue technology but clearly made for the current world. I’d hate to think we were in any way retro but we don’t believe in discarding the tools and processes that are so effective in making great electronic music. It is technology that allows us to be human and that is what’s underpinning it all.
The Wrangler Technology
MusicTech: Tell us about the studio?
Benge: I’ve been running an electronic studio for several years, firstly based in my little house in my front room, when I started collecting weird bits of gear in the early 90s. When it got too big for that I moved it into a space in the basement of a fashion boutique in Soho – you had to go through the girl’s changing rooms to get to it. Then it got too big for that space and I built a proper studio near Old St. I’ve got a lot of very old analogue and digital instruments and recording gear that is all set up to form one giant modular instrument. It’s kind of like climbing into a computer full of plug-ins and being able to walk around and play on everything – a bit like in the movie Tron but with synths.
MT: So which pieces of gear did you most use on the album?
Benge: We used several modular synthesiser systems: a Moog Modular, an ARP 2500, Buchla 100, Serge Paperface, EMS VCS3, Formant Modular, and Roland System 100M. Then there were quite a lot of big poly synths which we got our friend Tom Rogerson to play (because none of us can play chords) like the Yamaha CS80, Korg PS3100, Oberheim Four Voice, Polymoog and Sequential T8. We also used loads of mono synths for one-finger basslines and leadlines including a Minimoog, Roland SH-101, Yamaha CS01 and CS30 and Korg 770S. We put tons of old FX units on everything – often you would hear the cry of “put more flanger on it!” The last part of the process was mixing where we used a combination of consoles from the 1970s (MCI 416B), the 1980s (Studer 901) and the 00s (Sony DMX R100).
MT: What are each of your favourite pieces of studio gear and why?
Phil: For hardware synths it is the ARPs and the SH-101. The big Moog is great too.
Benge: My favourite things in the studio are the self-contained modular systems like the Moog 3C or the Buchla 100 which have their own sound sources, sequencers, mixers and FX units. I think they each have their own unique character and way of doing things and this makes them really inspirational to write on. Once you get to know them they are like work partners and you can collaborate with them on tracks. In a way this band’s got about 30 members!
MT: Do you still have anything on your wish list gear wise?
Benge: There are always things I keep a lookout for but it seems that nowadays, thanks to the resurgence interest in analogue hardware, things are so expensive. Back in the 90s people were literally chucking stuff out and I was driving round the country buying things from classified ads, and picking up bargains. It’s vary rare for that to happen now. Having said that I recently got contacted by a London university who were clearing out a music cupboard and found a load of old and vary rare EMS stuff. They gave me it for a nominal fee just to please the bursar, otherwise they were going to skip it! All I would say is, if anyone is thinking of throwing any synths away, check with me first because I will give them a good home.
MT: Of course, a lot of classic synths have been recreated in software. What do you think of them? Have you ever had a chance to A-B any side by side with this gear?
Benge: Yes I have used plug-in versions and they are really good if you need to work that way (i.e. in-the-box). But however good they might sound you can’t get the same interaction going with a computer interface and for me this is such a big part of the process that it kind of defeats the whole point. It’s like comparing a racing game on the PlayStation to actually driving round a race track in a 1978 Lamborghini Countach LP400S.
MusicTech: What was the ‘plan’ musically for the projects? Did you have a direction in mind or was it more organic?
Phil: We initially wanted to use just one synth per tune, but with Mal joining we would expand this idea, but not by much – we like to keep things
Mal: Choosing a particular synth, drum machine, or specific sound to be the first brick in the foundations. It’s easy to get excited about the machines so it is nice to let them have the first word and then we have to respond somehow.
MT: So how did a typical track – if there was a typical track – come together?
Phil: Once we had an idea of what sounds/kit we wanted for a particular track we would set up as a live band and jam the track until we got it flowing. It usually comes from some sort of rhythmic element – a sequencer or arpeggiator part – bass synths, drum machines, lead synths and vocal parts all arrive pretty randomly. It all comes together with the three of us at the desk mixing down.
Mal: Following on from that, we would have a couple of things working together. Benge and Phil would begin and we all responded – the technology is tactile and physical so it requires human interaction. We like taking the early stages into a ‘live’ situation to see how it can evolve with all three of us interacting. It also helps me construct the vocal ideas – we can bounce off each other. But also we might just throw a rough vocal idea on by recording quickly in the studio – it’s much easier than trying to shoe-horn a perfect vocal into a finished track.
We recorded the vocals with conscious nod of the head to analogue techniques – two microphones (straight and effected) and recording effects in real-time then reversing to get authentic backwards delays and reverbs.
MT: Obviously some of the tracks, perhaps inevitably, have a Cabaret Voltaire feel about them. Was this something you were conscious of either avoiding or embracing?
Phil: Neither really. We were happy with the sounds coming out of the speakers in the studio and didn’t want to over-think what put them there. That’s for other people to do.
Mal: Sorry that’s probably my fault – you can’t fake the human voice even if it has effects on it. Which is a good thing as it gives identity but I’m working on the principle that sooner or later we’ll reach people who’ve never heard of the Cabs. But, of course, I’m proud of all the work I’ve been involved in and I can’t wipe it away so it’s good there’s a progression into newer things.
I’d like to think that we all have our own stories and make them work together in Wrangler – Phil and Benge have an equally-important heritage which they bring into this. We’re all building on our collective past (perhaps it’s just that I’m older).
Benge: I was always such a huge fan of the Cabs, pretty much everything they did over the years I loved, and the way they evolved was particularly fascinating. It’s amazing for me to actually be working with Mal and see how he embraces ideas and anything you throw at him – the more extreme and wonky the better – and I can really see how his methodology influenced and drove their recorded output. Plus his vision lyrically was so important to their work and it has added such a great dimension to our tracks as well. I feel very honoured to be working with him.
MT: The songs definitely have a stripped back feel about them but are also quite mesmerising. Tell us about a typical arrangement and effects used to give them their atmosphere.
Phil: We like to keep the arrangements as simple as possible, to give each sound element its own space. I seem to remember a lot of flange and phaser working well in that area.
Mal: The intention was to not clutter the tracks and over-arrange them so the final arrangements came down to us all picking the essential parts we felt each track needed, living with it for a few days then fine-tuning. It’s the way I think we have all traditionally worked – final mixes always need to go through four or five stages. It’s no different to writing – you draft then keep re-drafting, each time you may only alter a few things, a small percentage, but you have to do it to polish each track.
MT: What future plans do you have?
Phil: This is definitely an ongoing band. There will be more releases this year and the next hopefully. As part of Lone Taxidermist I have an album coming out in the summer , and will be playing festivals this summer with my friends in Tunng.
Mal: There is a plan to do a ‘remix’ album of LA Spark with contributions from mixers/artists who work exclusively with analogue equipment, using gear of their choice. Plus gigs in UK and rest of Europe. I’ve got a couple of other side projects that are ticking along but stuff mostly done at distance: Hey Rube (with Steve from Fila Brazillia), Dub Mentor (with Lior Suliman in Israel) and Kula (me and Ron Wright from Hula). I’m also playing with members of ClockDVA, Crooked Man and In the Nursery as a one-off under the name Ibberson at a special Western Works Festival in honour of the old Cabs studio of that name. Wrangler are also playing the Sensoria Festival later this year which a nice bit of synchronicity. We’re getting our heads together to plan the next album. It’s too much fun so we’re looking forward to what comes next.
Wrangler’s album, LA Spark, is out now.
Stephen Mallinder OnCabaretVoltaire
Stephen Mallinder was in Cabaret Voltaire with Richard Kirk. Between them they provided a unique electronic soundtrack to the 80s that veered from being widely experimental to engagingly catchy (often within one track!) and was totally different from anything that went before it. They went on to influence a generation of electronic musicians with many artists from both the 90s and 00s listing the Cabs as one of their defining bands. In the mid 90s the band split with Kirk releasing solo projects and Mallinder upping sticks and moving to the other side of the world. Time for a catch up…
MusicTech: So what have you been up to since Cabaret Voltaire?
Mal: Well I was living in Australia for a number of years doing loads of different things. I had a label, Off World Sounds, which had about 30-odd releases between about 1998-2006, some were my releases (Ku-Ling Bros, Sassi & Loco) and others with lots of different Australian artists but we did stuff with people for all over the world (Vienna, New York, all around the UK). We also worked with other labels – Grand Central, Pork etc. – and did a lot of remixes. It was linked to Off World Productions as I promoted gigs: from club gigs to stuff in art galleries with a festival every year called Vibes On A Summer’s Day/Good Vibrations which ended up with 30,000 people.
I wrote for music magazines and was a radio producer and presented my own shows (music, arts and current affairs) for a number of years. For some reason I ended up writing my PhD thesis in music which I came back to the UK and finished. That is how I reconnected with everyone and how Wrangler was able to happen.
MT: Do you think Cabaret Voltaire now have the recognition you deserved?
Mal: I think we had a lot of recognition at the time to be truthful. I believe we were respected for working through a period in music (prior to the digital and online revolution) in which the ability to balance integrity with progressing to wider audiences was a difficult task. Today niches can exist more easily with online communities supporting them. There is no real centre and edge now – it’s all one huge cultural pot (not including the ephemeral pop culture of reality TV) so the tension between popular and cool doesn’t exist – it’s all just out there. The Cabs made a lot of different music over a long period and navigated that space pretty well.
I think it is just a case of people seem to like one Cabs period over another. We didn’t see it in that way. We just made the music of our times and the times were changing. Today everything is in the ‘now’, it’s not linear, so those types of subjective judgments about past music are meaningless.
MT: Either way, what do you think the lasting legacy of the band will be?
Mal: I would like to think that we are seen as a band who spanned a very rapidly changing period – culturally, socially, economically and technologically – that still seems to resonate today. It would be good to think that our music represented those changes but, importantly, we tried to capture it and tried to hold a mirror up for people to look at the changing world and question it a little bit. Although to be honest it would just be nice if people say, ‘they made some mad sounds and a few memorable tunes. And did you ever see the videos? .. Wicked!’
MT: And you knew we were going to ask: what about the future of the Cabs?
Mal: Well, although I co-own the name I think Richard is intending to use it for his own stuff so I can’t imagine I’ll be asked to be involved. But who knows? I’ve got Wrangler stuff which I really love and I’m proud of so I would like to think still I have plenty to offer regardless.